Sandbags to Sand Dunes Expedition 2010

40,000km overland in an Land Rover

Archive for the ‘Kenya’ Category

Crossing the Equator

Posted by jamesandpolls on May 28, 2010

It’s hot. Again. We are camping on the shores of Lake Baringo, one of the Rift Valley Lakes in North West Kenya. We are parked about 7m from the lakeshore, and from where I am sitting I can see right around the far rim of the Lake and also Baringo Island. About 5m away, on the reedy shore, is a wooden sign that says ‘Hippos and Crocodiles are dangerous’. Duh.

This sign was meters from our tent..!

Last night we had 6 hippos in the camp and they spent all night chomping their way around our tent. It was fantastic fun to get the torch out and watch these killer cows only 2 metres away, all the time feeling very safe in the tent. Birds fly amok, insects scurry, there is life everywhere here. At light sleeper would not get to sleep at night with the chomping hippos, the chirping cicadas and the chorus of other unidentifiable animals. Baringo marks our penultimate stop in Kenya, or Keen-yah, before we head to Uganda. It has been a fantastically diverse three weeks; some utter luxury and home comforts and yet the worst roads imaginable and the most dangerous! A contradictory journey that reflects Kenya as a country.

Readers of the last blog may have noticed some negative feelings that Polls and I had towards Ethiopia and the Ethiopians. (Polls actually toned down my bitterness for the final version!) Looking back at it now from the shores of Lake Baringo, it does seem like a bit of a bad dream, but perhaps one that was overstated. On reflection I think the bad roads (and road habits of others) and particularly me getting ill tainted what could have been a pleasant journey. We were wrong to let the begging get to us but of course this is easy to say from here.

The stay with Sam in Addis had been a godsend. We had recouped, I had finally got better, PAX had been looked at and given the all clear and we had had the opportunity to eat some good food. We also had a fascinating visit to the Ethiopian National Museum where ‘Lucy’ is displayed. Lucy was found in 1974 in Hadar, in the Danakil Depression, a barren desert area in Eastern Ethiopia (also where the famine of the 80s/90s occurred). Its discovery was the ‘missing link’ between our tree dwelling ancestors and bipedal man and proved that this happened much longer ago than previously thought – about 3.5 million years ago. Equally delightful was the visit to the Lemon Tree Café, an expat hangout where we stuffed ourselves on the kind of things we had not had since leaving the UK . . delicious! Thus it was with lighter spirits and a better mentality that we left Addis for Southern Ethiopia, the border and Kenya. The road down from Addis was great. As we dropped down from the Addis plateau to into the Rift Valley a string of lakes stretched out in front of us like a pearl necklace. This string of lakes would continue all the way through Ethiopia, Kenya and into Tanzania. As we were at a lower altitude the vegetation changed. A country that we had already thought of as lush became almost tropical. It started to look like ‘Africa’ with acacia trees and banana palms along the roadside.

Goats settling in for the night under Pax

One thing that was surprising here was the selling tactics of the roadside sellers. Everything is for sale on the side of the road from bananas to charcoal to water to wooden curios and they are all sold in one stretch of the road thus there would be a charcoal stretch where nothing other than charcoal is sold, and then a banana stretch and so on. On each 2km stretch everyone would come into the road and try to sell you their wares (this is not a village but a main road so we were going 60/70 km per hour). This created a sort of human slalom effect. What surprised us was that the last guy on each stretch gave it as much enthusiasm as the first as if it had taken us 2km of say, banana sellers, to decide we wanted a banana. This admirable enthusiasm for commerce was repeated with all manner of produce and kept us amused for our trip to Shashemene.

Polls and Hailu with 'Africa in Banana Leaves'!

Shashemene sits in an area of land that the last Emporer of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, had given to the Rastafarian movement and it is now considered their spiritual home. On arrival we found ourselves out of Ethiopia and dropped into Jamaica, with dreads, reggae music and the red, green and yellow stripes of the religion adorning anything that was wooden or concrete. To be honest the place is a bit of a dump and we had heard stories in Addis of disaffected Jamaicans leaving wife and family in the Caribbean to return to their ‘Holy Land’ only to find that Ethiopia is perhaps not so nice as Jamaica but not having the money to return, are forced to stay there ad infinitum. We visited the ‘museum’, which is more of a private art gallery together with some Ethiopian campaign medals and old magazines on display. It is owned by Hailu, a Rasta from St. Vincent and the Grenadines who has been in Shashemene for the last 20 years. As you might imagine, after a 40-minute private tour of the museum from Hailu we were the proud owners of some of his banana leaf art – a picture of Africa. Excellent.

We camped in a hotel (which had been Haile Selassie’s holiday house) car park in Wondo and cooking for ourselves after even only 2 nights of Ethiopian food since Addis was a grateful return to the norm. there very (very) hot springs nearby, so we swam in Haile Selassie’s private swimming pool, so hot it was exhausting to swim even one length (or maybe that is our lack of fitness). Now you would think that election fever would not reach Ethiopia, but think again. After plenty of BBC World in Addis we were clued up on the manifestos and the debates and looking forward to the results with as much anticipation/dread as you in the UK. The next morning we were up early and forcing the restaurant to put on the TV while everyone was having breakfast, we spent a very enjoyable three hours watching the results come in.

The drive to Yabello our next stop, was fast, tropical and empty (most Ethiopians must live in the North) which meant that we could have a private pee when required – simple pleasures! Yabello is the gateway to the Omo valley and the home of the  tribal people famous for the cow running on Bruce Parry’s series. It is possible to cross the border into Kenya through the Omo valley, we decided against this for a few reasons. The rain had been so bad in the valley that some overlanders had had to turn back just a week before us due to the state of the roads, we had also heard that the effects of tourism on the valley had far from genuine results. Villages would now charge $50 – $100 dollars just to enter the village and individuals would charge per click of the camera as you took a picture of them. This experience would, therefore, probably give us some amazing pictures but would lack any sort of authentic interaction between peoples, being more akin to a zoo, and would also seriously lighten our wallets.

Rift Valley Lake

Yabello was therefore just a pit stop before heading onto Moyale and the border. Like all border towns so far Moyale is busy, crowded and has a hint of ‘dodgy dealing’ about it. Luckily we headed straight to the border to see what time it would open the next day (Sunday) to be told that it did not open till lunchtime (which is a very loose term in Africa and can mean 4pm or even never) but we could stamp out today. A few phone calls later and the customs man was roused and the passport man summoned and we were officially stamped out of although physically inside of Ethiopia for one more night. The reason for this hesitation to cross the border was the long drive the next day over a notoriously long stretch of crap road, and with the recent rains we were expecting the road to be even worse. As a result we were out of Ethiopia at 5.55am to get to the Kenya border at 6am when it opened. It is with a hint of a smile that I say, and I promise, that about 5 metres before no mans land started a boy aged about 12 shouted “gimme . . ”, our final farewell from Ethiopia. I think he must be a Government employee, put on the border to give ferengis an Ethiopian send-off, and it made us laugh.

Straight away we saw the difference between Kenya and Ethiopia, the border post here is an efficient and ordered affair where offices have been arranged in neat concrete rows with a semblance of common sense that we had not seen since the Bulgarian / Turkish border crossing. It only took us 20 minutes therefore, to get out of there and on our way. Before we left we met a South African father/daughter team who had been intending to drive from CT to Cairo however they had been denied entry to Ethiopia which had stymied their plans. After some fruitless negotiation and a futile trip back to Nairobi by road (something you would not wish upon your worst enemy) they had resolved to go back to CT via a different route. It seems, with impending elections, that overland tourist visas to Ethiopia have been stopped. We must count ourselves as very lucky then for missing this new rule by only a couple of weeks.

A North Kenyan road leading into a rainstorm

Selfishly their loss was our gain as we went in convoy for the next day over what can only be described as a road in the loosest sense. Trucks had turned a mud track into a Somme like quagmire of ruts and puddles, our average speed for 10 hours of driving was about 15km per hour. This is the only stretch on the London-Cape Town route, which is unavoidably off road. Needless to say the Chinese are busy building a road from Isiolo in the South up to the border so in 6 months or so, you can get in your Ford Cortina and head to Cape Town on beautiful tarmac all the way! This stretch is also known as ‘the bad lands’ where until recently armed Army escorts had to take convoys of civilians South from the border. This was not the place to break down and get stuck overnight and it was comforting having the South Africans with us.

We arrived in Marsabit hot and tired as the hard but exceptionally stunning rocky desert drive had been exhausting. We stayed ‘Swiss Henry’s place’ ,which was great. Swiss Henry had married a local Kenyan and set up this very remote campsite, which also had a bakery, a cheese farm and chickens, so we feasted for the next day, which we took as a rest day. We shared the campsite with Peter and Toni, the South Africans as well as four Germans who were doing the same trip but were hoping to be in CT for the World Cup. Stories were shared around the fire (mine getting better and better and more untrue as the months go on), lots of laughs and many Tusker beers sunk. The next morning we woke up to find the site had been invaded by a grasshopper swarm – millions of the things everywhere – luckily we were leaving!

Our arrival at Lake Turkana

Lake Turkana (aka the Jade Sea) was West of Marsabit, the other side of the Chobi Desert. From various sources we heard that both routes, the high and the low one, were flooded from the recent rains and impassable. This region being the most remote in Kenya we were strongly advised by Swiss Henry to instead head straight south to Nairobi. Taking the Swiss peoples historical propensity towards neutrality and therefore safety we thought we must give it a go, the North or South road being our only conundrum, a decision which eventually took 5 minutes before we left, pretty much on a whim – the more direct south route. The ‘road’ was fantastic fun. Soft sand tracks through the bush for 60/70kms where we could absolutely fly followed by a dry riverbed for more of the same. It did get wet, for about 10km, and the desert turned to mud and swampy marsh, which took some navigating but was part of the fun. Admittedly it was with some relief though that we made it to the shores of lake Turkana and Loyangalani, where we would stay the night. Lake Turkana (as seen on The Constant Gardaner) is enormous and stunningly stark. The shores are barren and rocky as the lake is too alkaline to support plant life, but on the up side though (depending on your viewpoint) it does house the biggest single population of crocs in the world, although we didn’t see any!

Turkana woman

It is both the ‘Jade Sea’ and the people of Loyangalani that makes this trip worthwhile. This is the area of the Turkana, Samburu, Gabbra and El Molo tribes and they are magnificent. They are very tall and statesmanlike in their appearance and adorn themselves with bright jewellery and beads on their necks, ears and hair. The warriors (men) all carry spears. They drink a blood/milk mix as a substitute for water to keep them hydrated for longer, and water is seen as such a valuable resource that they are not allowed to drink it alone. It was incredibly alien and exotic to us as to see these tribesmen wander through the village seemingly unaware of how beautiful and magisterial they looked, it felt like we were in a different world. To say that the modern world has not reached here however would be a lie, a new phone mast and a fetish for mobiles has put this region well into the influence of Nairobi and Western ideals, it is not uncommon to see a Samburu warrior in full regalia, with a spear in one hand and a Nokia 6220 in the other, checking his emails! We left Loyangalani the next day after adopting a over excited ‘guide’, a guy called Michael, a local who was overflowing with chat about the Constant Gardener (he had been an extra in the film) and his new best friend Ralph Fiennes. He took us to the lake shore through the town and to a fish market.

We had two long days of driving south first to South Horr, where the tribemen were brighter than ever, then Maralal, a town surrounded by a nature reserve where we saw our first zebras by the side of the road. We set up camp in the rain at the Yare Camel camp, reflected on our last week of adventure, probably the most intrepid of the trip yet. No electricity/running water had become the norm, and we felt very removed from the outside world as no internet since Addis!

Breakfast by the river with Kit and Al

Our next stop was the start our Keen-yah experience which would see us staying with friends or friends-of-friends on and off for the next two weeks. Our first visit was to Loisaba Lodge, a safari camp that was run by a friend of a friend. The lodge was about 2 hours drive south of Maralal We were hoping for a place to camp in the Manager’s garden and as we drove into the Lodge entrance I joked to Polls “I Cant’ wait for the hot towels and the welcome drink!” As we turned the corner. . .voila. . one of the waiters with a basket of towels and a freshly squeezed orange juice each to knock back.

Elephant in the Loisaba reserve

As it turned out the lodge was empty as it is the low-season and we were to stay for the next two nights in a guest room – a luxury in itself to have a sit down loo and a comfy bed! Game drives, sundowners and breakfast by a swollen river made our stay truly magical and we must thank Kit and Alastair so very much for their hospitality. And next time the tennis cup is ours!

From our sejourn in Loisaba we continued South to Nanyuki which was the first good sized place since Addis and our first big Kenyan town. What struck us the most was the amount of signs everywhere – the modernity was giving us a culture shock! Even in this relative backwater there was a big supermarket that would not look out of place in the UK, hardware shops, good butchers where the meat is not hung above a sewer feeding the flies, tarmac roads and internet cafes. It was probably the most modern town, excluding capital cities that we had seen since Egypt or even Jordan. We stayed with Gill Littlewood, a friend of Polls’ parents just outside of town.

We've made it to the Equator!

Gill and her family are woven into Kenyan history. Gill’s father had been one of the original farmers and was well respected as one of the pioneers of farming in this wild frontier in the 30’s and Gill had spent most of her life in the country. She ran a fine dairy herd in Nanyuki and was a font of all knowledge on all things ‘colonial Kenyan’, we loved hearing her stories of Kenya old and new and of course meeting her faviurite cow ‘Queeny’. Just a few kilometres north of Gill’s house was the equator. We were now officially on the other side of the world. Although we will be wiggling North and South of it again as we head West to Uganda and Rwanda!


Next was Nairobi or ‘Nairobbery’ as we were led to believe – ‘windows up, car doors locked, hold onto your wallets, guns at the ready.’ Indeed second to Jo’burg, Nairobi has the highest murder rate in Africa and it was with some trepidation that we drove slowly through the outskirts of northern Nairobi (slowly because the Chinese are building a 6 lane superhighway and the roadworks have driven this area to an absolute standstill). The reception was placid though, a white face being much more common here than anywhere in Ethiopia. We shared the jams with Safari Company 4x4s, executives in their BMWs and Government workers in their Mercedes and certainly didn’t feel that we stood out enough to demand attention.

The suburbs of Karen and Langatta are an expat area with good restaurants, supermarkets and prep schools more often found in Berkshire than the bush. We were staying with Angus and Justine Douglas-Hamilton (cousin of Saba) and their children Siana and Billy. Polls had stayed with the family on her last visit to Kenya, 12 years ago and obviously had not made such a bad impression as to prevent a return visit! The quality of life they have is great -this is not easy living though, it is still Africa, water is scarce and electricity fails, the roads are bad, the traffic is crazy, there is some crime – everyone has guards and gates.

A Chameleon after a free lift in Nairobi!

We were in Nairobi for a week, as I had to do my final revision for my entrance exam for business school (the GMAT). I had been planning to take it in Amman, then Cairo and finally, not being able to put it of any longer, I chose Nairobi. The outcome would determine whether I do an MBA next year or not. So it was mentally out of Africa and into Algebra for the next 4 days of hard study. Luckily, or due to good preparation and natural intelligence (but I doubt that) I think I did reasonably well and await the final mark to be emailed to me in a week or so.

Unfortunately due to the exam we did not explore much of Nairobi but feel that we will be back one day so it doesn’t matter too much. We did have time to have a night out with James Armstrong, a Northumberland friend of Polls’ who was on a business trip to Nairobi, and also managed to stock up on all the food and supplies that we were missing. We had run out of gas in Ethiopia and after having bought a bag of charcoal from one of the charcoal sellers on the side of the road (the last one in the charcoal stretch – I made sure of it). We were having to BBQ every meal. This is fine except for morning tea. One of us had to get up 40 minutes early to light the BBQ to boil the water which was a little tedious, so we were relieved to be now back on the gas. Humungous thanks go to Angus, Justine, Siana and Billy for having us to stay. After all the scare stories we had heard about the city, we felt slightly relived to be leaving Nairobi with all our limbs in tact and still in possession of our car. This together with the fact that the exam was over meant that we returned to the road with high spirits ready for our trip to ‘the lakes’ and onwards to Uganda.

Our first stop was Lake Naivasha. Fisherman’s Camp, we think, is the best campsite so far. Shady, grassy, quiet, cheap, a great bar/restaurant with internet, a tremendous view of the lake and its resident hippos. It had it all. It was also now much easier to cook for ourselves. There were fresh fruit and veg stalls everywhere selling top notch and varied produce at very low prices. Most of the lakeshore here is covered in greenhouses, being the flower capital of the world. Chances are those out-of-season Roses on your windowsill started their life here. The same goes for your M&S ready to cook vegetable stir fry.

James in the lunch queue!

From Naivasha, where we spent a relaxing two days, we headed to our last home-stay. We were staying with Yoyo Vetch who lives in a very remote but wonderful house on the Soysambu (Lord Delemere’s estate). After entering the estate it took us a further 45 minutes to reach her house passing Lake Elementitia on the way. Yoyo’s house is overlooked by nothing and nobody except some distant hills, the tranquillity is absolutely complete. Occasional buffalo and giraffe wander past and leopard are sometimes seen around the house. Yoyo gave us an ‘African Welcome’ (a new phrase I am coining which includes selfless generosity, hospitality, great food, lots of booze and a lot of fun). As the time of our arrival coincided with sunset it was straight into the pick up with table and chairs and a cool box of beers and wine and off to another remote part of the estate for sun downers with friends and neighbours (including Lord Delamere’s son Tom recently released from his incarceration in Nairobi) for stories about life in Africa and life in general.

The ‘purpose’ (in the loosest sense of the word) of stopping here was to visit the school where a mutual friend of Polls’ and Yoyo’s, Victoria Knyvett, has worked on and off over the last year. The visit to the school was eye-opening, emotional and immensely rewarding. A dozen or so rickety concrete huts stand in a field of grass where 8 classes of children from 3-11 (although some are 14) are taught by 5 teachers. Now you don’t need to be a maths wiz to work out that 8 classes and 5 teachers does not compute but the remote nature of the school (at the geographic centre of the Estate) means that they have trouble recruiting and retaining teachers. We visited the classrooms and spent time with all the children, had lunch with them and then played with them afterwards. The gender stereotyping crossed borders with me being surrounded by the boys playing football and generally manically running about and polls skipping and singing with the girls. It was an absolute laugh. The children, despite some obvious signs of abject poverty, were fit, healthy and willing to learn. This is due to a feeding programme, set up by Tori, which means that every child is fed a cupful of porridge at lunchtime whereas before there was no food or water from dawn till dusk – hardly conducive to learning!

Fisherman in dugout canoe - Lake Baringo

Being on The Delemere Estate put us in the (perceived) heart of ‘British’ Kenyans. (‘British’ because the current constitution does not recognise dual nationality. Some have taken Kenyan nationality over British although their parentage is British – these people are included in this). Out of all the millions of British expats in the world it must be this small population that gets the most publicity; that has its own corporate identity. ‘Happy Valley’ is a place that sums this up. Images of waifish women in chiffon dresses cocktails in hand discussing the latest scandal, the men, titled, naturally, hunting down that trophy elephant to stick in the billiard room, the fast cars, the faster living, wife swapping and huge estates with vast tracts of land with huge herds; these are all images of the colonial era and also the images that the modern press (or is it just the red tops that I read?) still have us believe when white Kenya pops into the news. Although there is a good deal of harking back to the good old days, and living here here is still very fun, life for the modern British Kenyan is now more in line with the real world albeit at quite a high standard of living!

Yesterday we left Soysambu for Lake Baringo, our last port of call in Kenya. It has been a great three weeks. From meeting the colourful tribesmen in the far north, to enjoying the safaris and sundowners in Loisaba, from the intensity of Nairobi to the vastness of the Soysambu Estate; it has been as diverse a set of experiences that we have ever encountered on this trip. The only constant, I would say, from the North to the South of Kenya whether it has been from a Kenyan or a Keen-yahn is the famous African Welcome.

Soysambu School children on PAX!


Posted in Kenya | 2 Comments »